One day they found an African horn pit viper, two rhinoceros iguanas, and three rock iguanas. Less than two weeks before that, they discovered 18kg of peacock feathers. A month before that, they uncovered a leopard cub. The list goes on.
This isn’t a zoo, but the Chennai International Airport – a location that has rapidly become a hotspot in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade. The customs department at the airport has grown used to seizing creatures and goods that smugglers seek to illegally sneak out the country, such as star tortoises and sea cucumbers. Yet the airport is facing a new challenge in curbing the smuggling of wildlife into the country.
A number of reasons help to explain this development. Due to its geographic location, Chennai is an easy access point for those departing to or arriving from neighboring Southeast Asian states, especially as a vast amount of affordable flights pass through the airport each day. Due to this position, the city of Chennai has grown to develop a fairly deep smuggling network, where everything from sea horses to pangolin scales passes through. Additionally, wildlife smuggling rings in the region have no shortage of manpower. They routinely turn to young people, such as college students, to act as conduits, offering them attractive amenities in return like free international airplane tickets, a hotel room, and some spending money. Oftentimes, the couriers have no understanding of the handler or the customer they are serving, meaning that, even when they are caught, little more can be done with them other than assigning them a fine and sending them on their way.
India as a whole is a key battleground in the illegal wildlife trade. Between 2009-2017, Indian authorities captured nearly 6,000 pangolins that passed through the country. Pangolins, which can be found throughout India, are one of the most sought after animals in the wildlife trade, as their scales are viewed as key ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. The Indian star tortoise is another animal that has come under threat due to the trade. Though a stable population currently resides in India, poachers are rapidly pursuing it because of its popularity as a pet. While 10,000 to 20,000 were poached in 2004 throughout their entire habitable region – which includes India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – approximately 55,000 were taken from just one Indian village in 2014. Newborn and young Indian star tortoises are routinely poached because their small size makes them easy to conceal at key poaching transit locations, such as airports. Furthermore, wildlife traffickers target as many as 200 types of birds from throughout India, be it for medicinal purposes, consumption, or individuals’ desire to domesticate them.
It comes as no surprise that the wildlife trade permeates India with such prevalence. Studies estimate the trade to be valued at $5 billion globally, making it the fourth largest international smuggling market. The price tag associated with a number of wildlife-related goods has risen rapidly and dramatically, contributing to the staggering international value. The rhinoceros, which can be found in India, provides a stark example of this trend. Rhinos are targeted not only for their meat and bones, but their ivory horns. The value of one kilogram of ivory nearly tripled in just four years, climbing from $750/kg in 2010 to $2,100 in 2014. The typical rhino horn was sold for $29,000/kg in 2017.
Indian authorities, both within airports and around the country, have recently taken a number of steps to combat wildlife smuggling. The airport has strengthened its security presence, and because its security personnel have become accustomed to detecting cases of smuggling, they have become more effective in spotting potential perpetrators. However, much of the work to combat the illegal wildlife trade is not taking place on the ground, but online. In March 2019, for example, a number of NGOs, including TRAFFIC and WWF-India, held a two-day event to promote cyber security awareness for the forest officials of Kali Tiger Reserve, Karnataka. The event touched on several areas relevant to detecting potential crimes online, including communications device investigation, social media investigation, and digital forensics. These methods are all a part of the NGO community’s “Cyber CLAW” training program, in which they strive to improve the cyber capabilities of Forest Department officials across India. Similar programs have trained officials from the state of Assam, as well as Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Even though wildlife smuggling remains painfully present in states like India, these actions taken by authorities, as well as international NGOs, emphasize how seriously such groups take the threat of the trade. Only through further cooperation, both with the NGO community and international partners, may India – and others states combatting the illicit wildlife trade – strengthen their enforcement capabilities and weaken smuggling operations. While the recent efforts are great first steps, they are only that – first steps.